Electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani and composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith come together for two lengthy slices of ambient bliss as part the RVNG label’s FRKWYS series.
“Ladies and gentleman, this woman standing next to me is an electronic wizard,” declared a bemused and gleeful David Letterman on his show in 1980. He sounded like a wide-eyed child standing beside a chipper alien, one with braids in her hair, giving network-television watchers a portal into her new expanding universe. Letterman listed off her credentials: composing commercial soundtracks for the likes of Coca-Cola, reproducing electronic effects for “the disco version of Star Wars,” and winning many awards. “This is Suzanne Ciani,” Letterman goes, as she slathered the befuddled host’s voice in quizzical delay. Laughter persisted. “Tell ‘em what we got here,” Letterman asked, and Ciani pointed out her Prophet-5 synthesizer, a vocoder, a frequency follower, an Eventide harmonizer—“That means nothing to anybody but you!” the host interjects. “Do the one where it sounds like the whole studio’s gonna explode!” Ciani offered a pitched-shifted affirmation: “Don’t be afraiiid…”
In 1980, the pioneering Ciani—who would go on to earn several Grammy nominations in the New Age category—was a decade into her experiments with the modular Buchla synthesizers, which she used to create dramatic seconds-long effects for the likes of the Xenon pinball game, PBS, and Atari. And Ciani had also just begun work on her own debut masterpiece, the elegantly spare Seven Waves, released in Japan in 1982 and the U.S. two years later. “In order to see something, you have to have a concept of it,” Ciani, now 70, told The Quietus in 2012. “People had no concept of electronic music back then. So even if they were sitting in front of a machine and sound was coming out of it, they still didn’t get it.”
Even as electricity has become the preeminent building-block of our musical lexicon, the Buchla—with its wires spilling over a landscape of knobs, its tactile sense of exploration, of conversing subtly with the machine—is still extremely rare. But fate has its way of bringing outsiders together. That Ciani would encounter a fellow Buchla synthesist, the 30-year-old Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, while sitting…